Peaches on ‘Scary’ Terry Richardson and Igniting the Gender Fluid Revolution
The outspoken gender-bending musician opened up about everything from Hillary Clinton and Miley Cyrus to Chrissie Hynde’s rape comments.
Electroclash provocateur Merrill Nisker, best known by her stage name Peaches, is staring down a picture of herself and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. “You’re gonna help me with the caption,” she says, offering a view of her Instagram screen. There’s Davis, her giant head rising up like the sun over a grassy hill, in a sky made of silky lavender sheets. And there’s Peaches, tongue out and hair flipped under a glittering rainbow. “Do you see? I’m handing her a hot dog. And there are, like, wedding veils. But I just don’t know what to say. ‘Wedding bells, cockle shells?’ Nah. ‘Wedding bells and hot dogs?’”
The night before, Peaches had entered the stage for a small concert in New York to a loop of “Eye of the Tiger,” in mocking tribute to Davis’s outrageous emergence from the Carter County Detention Center, where she had been briefly imprisoned for refusing to follow a federal court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “I had two guys in suits bring me out,” Peaches says, a reference to Davis’s cheerleaders, Mike Huckabee and attorney Mat Staver. Then she starts fake-sobbing, approximating Davis’s exaggerated tears.
“What are you supposed to write after all that?”
A pause, then Peaches decides. “I’m writing ‘Eye of the hot dog. Bitch.’ Whatever. Someone will get it.”
Davis is a natural target for Nisker; she’s the anti-Peaches. Onstage and in her funny, biting, forever kinky lyrics, the “Fuck the Pain Away” singer has been music’s loudest champion for sexual freedom since she assumed the mantle of Peaches 15 years ago. She subverts conventions of gender and sexuality, and celebrates freaks of all kinds—usually to a grinding, infectious electro beat. Simply put, Peaches is what you listen to while tearing down the patriarchy.
This month, Peaches released her sixth studio album, Rub, which comes at a time when mainstream America has moved closer to the teachings of Peaches than ever before. The Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage, feminism is a concept even young celebrities are embracing, and the notion of blurred lines between male and female sexuality are finding high-profile faces in Caitlyn Jenner, Miley Cyrus, and other icons of 2015. The woman who drilled the line “I don’t have to make the choice, I like girls and I like boys” 12 years ago on the Fatherfucker song “I U She” (now also the name of her self-started record label) suddenly seems prescient rather than fringe.
Still, Peaches’s mission remains unchanged. As she sings, angelically, on the Rub track “Light in Places,” she’s still here to “Liberate en masse / Eliminate the class / All humans, free at last / So much beauty coming out of my ass.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Peaches to discuss Rub, politics, and what it’s been like watching America slowly come around to her way of thinking.
It’s been six years since you released your last album, I Feel Cream. How are you handling getting back into the groove of promoting an album like this?
It’s pretty crazy. ’Cause I’m a person that people wanna talk to. It’s not necessarily the music—even though I think it’s great, I love this album and everything’s great about it. But I’m a person they wanna talk to, especially right now because they’re like, “Oh, your gender fluidity, uh, discussions are really coming true right now!” So it’s like a whole new set of people who are finding me important.
Is that in part because of people like Miley Cyrus, who’s helped bring the term “gender fluid” into mainstream consciousness?
Yeah. I mean, what else did people think Miley was? Are people shocked by that? She’s just being a kid of her time.
She is. People do find her persona polarizing. Grace Jones seems to be talking directly about Miley in her memoir when she writes about young stars who “dress up as though they are challenging the status quo, but by now, wearing those clothes, pulling those faces, revealing those tattoos and breasts, singing to those fractured, spastic, melting beats—that is the status quo.” Miley, meanwhile, sees the pasties as a “power stance.”
Ugh, I just think it’s time for everyone to fucking get naked. What’s the point when Miley Cyrus wears two little suspenders or whatever [the outfit Cyrus wore to the VMAs]? “Look, I’m skimpier than you!” Just get fucking naked. Why do we have these problems? Really all we have is our bodies. I’m sorry, designers, I’m sorry you’ll be out of a job but why don’t we just show ourselves? Like, I have very large nipples. That could be my fashion statement. It’s just so fucking stupid, it’s like a contest of how close you can get to being naked without being naked. It’s ridiculous. But if I do show my naked body, then it becomes like a whole thing.
Well, if you put it on Facebook, then they’ll take it off Facebook. And Instagram doesn’t like female nipples. It’s just ridiculous.
Has it been gratifying over the last few years to watch America—
Catch up with me?
Yes, in terms of open sexuality and freedom.
It’s exciting. It’s exciting that people are willing to talk about it and they don’t see me as a weirdo freak. They find me important. It doesn’t change me. I’m not like, “I told you so,” or whatever. And I’m also on my guard a bit because you still have people like Kim Davis, you know what I mean? Things are going exponentially in all directions. So yes, these are great media topics but also there’s a lot more. Like, Donald Trump is leading the polls and he sounds like Rob Ford, you know—the Canadian, crack-smoking Toronto mayor? People thought he was “for the people,” too. Yeah, all he did was smoke crack with the people. The entire Republican field [makes you go], “How is that even possible?” And then there’s someone like Hillary Clinton who, as a woman, is not someone I want to vote for at all. She’s just being bougie and secretive about everything and spending a lot of money. Why can’t Bernie win?
But also, look what happened to Obama. He started out with the best intentions and didn’t get anywhere. He was just held back. If you’re president it doesn’t really mean that you have a voice. It’s just, like, whatever’s behind you.
And where the money’s coming from.
Yeah, it’s all fucking money again. Congress should get naked. No money in ya pocket, get naked! And that’s not even a hippie thing, it’s just “get naked so we can all get over it.” And why would you wanna be a politician when the whole system is not working anyway? We still need to break down the patriarchal system, so it’s a bigger issue. It’s not, “Who are you gonna vote for?” ’Cause it’s never gonna be right, whether it’s a woman or a man. It’s not a good system. There are so many lies and secrets and so much money laundering and bribery, you can’t even get to the center of it. God, I’ll bet you Obama has, like, post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s probably so excited to get out of there.
Back to the record for a minute. What made you excited to begin writing again?
Even though it’s a privilege to be able to make an album and know that you can tour it for two years and people will come, I just needed a little...I don’t wanna just make something for the sake of making it. I don’t have any sort of pressure from any record company, especially now because [I Feel Cream] was the end of my contractual obligation, even though that obligation was very whatever I wanted in terms of when I released an album. What they would do for me is another story, but…
You mean XL Records?
Yeah. It’s like, a seemingly independent label. But they have bigger names. I think that they have smaller, cooler names for tax write-offs. I was one of those. “Good name. We don’t really have to do anything for her, she’s not gonna sell records. Tax write-off.” So I’m really happy that I’m on my own label, I U She Records. That also goes into the things I was just talking about where people are saying, “Oh, things are swinging your way.” More and more people are going independent and getting more involved in their whole process, which I think is always very important. If you wanna share your vision, you can’t just let people [interfere].
I loved the video for “Close Up,” where Kim Gordon is your boxing coach. Was that your first time working with Kim?
Yeah, she’s great. [For the song] she just came in the studio and heard the beat. In my mind, I was like, “It’s not really like a Kim beat,” but she’s so used to being an improviser and so used to being spontaneous. On the first take, she just had this great idea. It was like, “Oh my god. You are Kim Gordon.”
There’s a funny line in the song about “romancing your phone” and you reference Grindr and other dating apps. Have you dabbled in those?
Nah, those are not really interesting for me because I’ll never be really anonymous in those situations. But I prefer romancing the phone after you’re already involved. Like, I like sexting and I like playing with images and keeping fun things alive through the different mediums that are available to you. But I like to start it off with a kinetic or real connection, like, “I met you. We actually connected.” I need the physicality first. Especially with what I do. I think with social media, it’s like the perpetuation of the Andy Warhol “15 Minutes of Fame,” but I don’t wanna perpetuate that in that situation. I’m not someone who wants to have like, groupie sex or stuff like that.
You and Margaret Cho shot the video for “Dick in the Air” out on Hollywood Boulevard. How did random passerby react to the sight of you two on the ground in your fuzzy pink and yellow penis suits?
Oh yeah, I was a little worried because it’s L.A. so everybody, even if you’re like, a homeless person, is saying, ‘Well, do you have a permit for that?” But we never had any problems, The part that we did on Hollywood Boulevard where I’m singing Barbra Streisand, that was the first thing I ever sang, back when my parents were still like, “Oh, Barbra!” It was just a coincidence that the star was there. What we were trying to do was take pictures with tourists but tourists were like, [holds up invisible cellphone]. And then we’d go, “Do you want a picture with us?” And they’d go, “Uh, no.” And then they’d take pictures of us, and Spider-Man was getting really upset…
You grew up singing Barbra Streisand?
Yeah, the first time I ever sang was at a cousin’s bar mitzvah when I was like 7. I asked my mom if I could sing with the band and she was like, “Can you sing?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah, I think I can,” and she said, “Well, OK, go ask the band.” And that’s how I ended up having to sing that at every wedding and bar mitzvah until I was old enough to say, “NO! I’m not singing this anymore!” It’s funny because I got an email from my mother about the video and she’s like, “You look so cute in the video! It seems like you’re having a lot of fun and bonus: I got to hear you sing ‘Memories’ again!” [Laughs.] It was really cute.
I listened to a podcast you did with Bret Easton Ellis a little while ago, and you mention your distaste for photographer Terry Richardson—
Why the fuck do people keep hiring that fucking idiot? Why?
It really seems like no matter how many women come out with allegations against him, magazines keep hiring him for photo shoots and celebrities keep paying him for music videos.
I don’t understand. I really don’t understand. He’s getting more famous and getting accolades—and he obviously has so many issues. Father issues. He’s very scary. I know people I could call and they could confirm. It’s not a joke. It’s not a fucking joke. I don’t even know. He’s not even a great photographer.
Abuse like that is still so rampant, in the music industry as well. There was a great, illuminating Twitter movement a while back where Jessica Hopper, the Pitchfork editor, invited women to tweet out their sexist horror stories.
And also Kim Fowley with The Runaways and Jackie Fox being raped in front of all these people—like, I can bet that that was just drugs and ego in that rock era. There’s probably a million disgusting stories like that. And those guys just seem like, “That’s just how it was, man, that was the ’70s! You just gotta suck it up.” And I love Chrissie Hynde but what the fuck was she saying? I love her so much, she’s in my “Fuck the Pain Away” song, [in the lyric] “Check out my Chrissie be-Hynde.” It was like, “What are you saying? Why? Why are you making yourself seem so old school, like you don’t know what’s going on?”